Skip to Content

Everglades Wonder Gardens: Old-time roadside attraction reborn in Bonita Springs

Only a few of the original roadside attractions that dotted Florida highways in the first half of the 20th Century have survived.

In Bonita Springs, we were happy to visit one — Everglades Wonder Gardens, founded in 1936. It not only has survived, but it’s probably more beautiful than ever.

Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. The sign out front is a nod to the signs and postcards of the era in which it first opened. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. The sign out front is a nod to the signs and postcards of the era in which it first opened. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Located on a history-filled stretch of Old 41 Road, Everglades Wonder Gardens is small, but it packs a lot into its 3.5 acres. Admission is $12 for adults, low enough that visitors should be happy with an hour or two of entertainment and beauty.

It’s operated by a non-profit on what is now city-owned land.

My husband and I were both enchanted with the place, and that’s after we started our visit with low expectations in a drizzling rain.  

Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. You can admire the flamingo pond from several different vantage points. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. You can admire the flamingo pond from several different vantage points. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

What’s special about Everglades Wonder Gardens besides its longevity?

My favorite thing is just the overall beauty of the gardens, filled with birds and small animals, with jungly pathways, colorful flowers, bromeliads, succulents and tree specimens.

Here are eight more things I loved about Everglades Wonder Gardens

  • Two flamingos, serene and beautiful in a lily-filled pond with a small waterfall. While we there, a flock of wild ibises flew in to join them.
  • The many blooming orchids that decorated the shady pathways.
Orchids along the walkways at Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Orchids along the walkways at Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
  • The reptiles: Alligators, of course, in a beautiful and healthy habitat, but also the very scary looking huge alligator snapping turtle. That thing looks prehistoric.
  • The Old World French iron and glass conservatory buildings that house some birds. One is called the tea room and is used for people, for special events. (What a beautiful spot for a small wedding.)
The ornate conservatory buildings used in the garden add to its beauty. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The ornate conservatory buildings used in the garden add to its beauty. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
  • The “rescue” parrots and macaws sitting on perches chatty and uncaged as you enter the garden.
  • Other exotic birds, including the striking Great Currasow and the funny, friendly rainbow lorikeets.
As you enter Everglades Wonder Gardens, you are met by several colorful parrots and macaws. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
As you enter Everglades Wonder Gardens, you are met by several colorful parrots. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
  • The sign out front. Who can resist a sign inspired by old-fashioned Florida roadside billboards? I love how that sign honors the history and origins of Wonder Gardens.
  • The gift shop. Yes, this totally surprised me, as I am definitely not into gift shops. But this small shop had a terrific collection of interesting and unusual Florida themed items. If you’re looking for a gift, I’d recommend you stop for the gift shop alone.
The gift shop at Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. They had me at the flamingo items. Who wouldn't want that umbrella? (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The gift shop at Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. They had me at the flamingo items. Who wouldn’t want that umbrella? (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The story of Everglades Wonder Gardens

Back when Old 41 was new 41 and people started driving to South Florida in winter, the Piper brothers founded the Wonder Gardens. It opened in 1936 as Everglades Reptile Gardens.

Alligators, of course, were an exotic and a thrilling attraction. (Frankly, I have to think that they were free and easy to acquire too.) The Piper brothers had lots of them in a memorable pit piled atop each other.

Soon, though, the Pipers probably realized “reptile garden” sounded creepy and a more appealing name was given: Everglades Wonder Gardens — and it was more than reptiles.

The concrete alligator on display now is a throwback to the original Everglades Wonder Gardens. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The concrete alligator on display now is a throwback to the original Everglades Wonder Gardens. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

A 1946 brochure of 31 roadside attractions includes this description of Everglades Reptile Gardens: “The Everglades in captivity! Largest collection of Florida crocodiles in the world. Watch the dance of the rare sand-hill cranes. Birds, panthers, otters, deer, bear.” (The brochure is preserved by the Florida Memory Project collection.)

Everglades Wonder Gardens stayed in the Piper family for three generations until 2013, when illness forced the sale of the property.

Visitors at Everglades Wonder Gardens. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Visitors at Everglades Wonder Gardens. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Fortunately, wildlife photograph John Brady took over the property as a tenant and began to modernize it, putting more focus on the “garden” part of the name. Many of the original animals went to Gatorland in Orlando, another old roadside attraction that survives.

Brady and other community supporters started a non-profit and in 2015, the city loaned them money to purchase the property. Eventually, the city purchased the land and the non-profit operates the facility.

There have been a lot of changes to Wonder Gardens as a result – some animals are no longer there. (There was once a Florida panther, deer and a bear.)

It’s more of a garden now than zoo. In the past, apparently, visitors could feed flamingos, but this is no longer permitted. The changes mean you’ll find some unhappy reviews online, but you’ll also read others (like this one) that are positive and consider it small but quaint and aren’t comparing it to the past.

Map of Everglades Wonder Gardens today. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Map of Everglades Wonder Gardens today. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Visiting Everglades Wonder Gardens

Like the rest of Southwest Florida, the gardens are only now recovering from the 2022 Hurricane Ian. (The area had a 3.5 foot storm surge; it’s only three miles from the Gulf.) The entrance buildings with its fun gift shop only opened at the end of 2023, but the gardens now show no sign of any damage.

As you enter the gardens, you are first met by some of the most charismatic animals, the colorful parrots, who can be loud and talkative. They are all former pets; a role they do not excel at, according to a sign there. (“Parrots are loud, demanding and can use their beaks to cause damage.”)

One of the banyan trees at Everglades Wonder Gardens. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
One of the banyan trees at Everglades Wonder Gardens. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Across from the parrots is one of the most dramatic trees in the garden, a huge banyan, one of four. Hanging from the banyan are large staghorn ferns, which are native to the area. It’s a beautiful scene.

Throughout the gardens, there are orchids, beautiful bromeliads and tropical trees around the ponds, cages and enclosures that house the 300 animals.

One of the most beguiling scenes in the garden is the water lily pond where the flamingos live. There are only two flamingos, the last ones alive from a flock that hatched at Wonder Gardens in the 1960s! Flamingos usually live 40 to 60 years, so these are decidedly geriatric.

Historic photo of alligator pit at Everglades Wonder Gardens. (Photo courtesy Florida Memory Project)
Historic photo of alligator pit at Everglades Wonder Gardens. (Photo courtesy Florida Memory Project)

Another centerpiece is the alligator pond. These alligators were actually swimming and moving, which is not something we always get to see. Some visitors do remember the old days, when Wonder Gardens had a huge pile of alligators.

A sign at the exhibit explains: “Gone are the days of the overcrowded gator pit where alligators often harm each other in dirty water.” There are now fewer gators in the exhibit, and animals are added and removed based on how well they get along.

A key addition to the gardens will be river otters, whose habitat is being prepared now, and could go on exhibit some time in 2024.

A carambola tree full of fruit drew the admiration of visitors to Everglades Wonder Gardens in January. (Photo: David Blasco)
A carambola tree full of lovely fruit drew the admiration of visitors to Everglades Wonder Gardens in January. (Photo: David Blasco)

Making the most of a visit

We strolled slowly through the garden, taking pictures, admiring the plants and animals and reading all the signage, which is well done.

My recommendation: Because the facility is small, wander through it a second time. On our second pass, the alligator snapping turtle had moved into a position where I could see it more clearly and a flock of ibises flew into the flamingo pond adding to the beauty. We noticed other details on the second loop too.

We were happy we weren’t in a rush.

Everglades Wonder Gardens

27180 Old 41 Road
Bonita Springs, FL 34135-5405
239-992-2591

Tickets: $12 adults; $10 for seniors; $7 for children 3 to 12 and free under age 3.

Hours: In the winter season, the hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with the last ticket told at 2:30 p.m.

Special experiences: Visitors can pay $25 for an “animal encounter.” We saw a family enjoying this experience, which included going into the lorikeet habitat and feeding them and having photos taken with the birds perched on their arms and shoulders. You also feed the Sulcata tortoises in the 30 minute experience. There are also guided Wonder Walk tours for $10 extra on select Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Exploring Old Bonita Springs

Old Bonita Springs makes a great weekend getaway. Old 41 is fun to explore, with a few shops and cafes. It’s clear from work in progress that much is being added, and I expect this area will fill up with appealing places to visit and shop, getting even better in the next few years. Other highlights:

The Imperial River, which forms one border of Everglades Wonder Gardens. You can rent or launch a kayak right across the river fromghe gardens at Riverside Park on Old 41. It’s a beautiful paddle upstream through a shaded canopy of lush trees with Old Florida homes tucked amid the vegetation, lots of birds and turtles and, if you’re lucky, a few manatees. It’s a perfect paddle for a few hours over a weekend visit.

Shangri-la Springs, a historic hotel surrounded by eight acres of gardens with fountains, ponds, towering trees and the original spring the town is named for. You are welcome to visit the grounds or have breakfast or lunch at its restaurant, which serves produce from its organic garden. It’s an Old Florida hidden gem!

Barefoot Beach. Three miles east of Old 41 is one of the best “secret” beaches in Florida — a county preserve named one of the best beaches in the U.S.

Other roadside attractions

We’ve written about several other former roadside attractions. They’re all interesting!


All articles on FloridaRambler.com are original, produced exclusively for our readers and protected by U.S. Copyright law. Any use or re-publication without written permission is against the law. Read more: floridarambler.com/licensing

This page may contain affiliate links from which Florida Rambler may earn a small commission if a purchase is made. This revenue supports our mission to produce quality journalism about authentic Florida at no cost to our readers.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

sonny

Sunday 28th of January 2024

Can't wait to go. Thanks for the posting

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.